Some people don’t deserve the harshness life imposes upon them. Jaber El-Wanni was one of those persons.
This summer, when I last visited him in his home to bid him farewell before heading back to Palestine, I was speechless. How do you tell someone goodbye when you both know it will be the last time you will ever see each other? The fragile giant of a man that barely resembled the Jaber I chose to remember, slowly got out of his recliner and, as always, took the initiative. He said, “Well, if I don’t see you again, please take good care of yourself.” My pitiful answer was all I could muster, replying to him that I’ll see him again soon, maybe around Christmas. We both knew better.
After a long and difficult battle with cancer, Jaber El-Wanni, passed away at home in Youngstown, Ohio on September 8, 2016 surrounded by family and friends. He suffered months on end for sure, but you would not know it by sitting and talking with him. He lived the last period of his life with the same dignity that he lived the rest of his life. A man of high intelligence and keen intellect, Jaber was not one to live in empty slogans, but rather approached life’s challenges with an analytical mind that operated in a world of facts and reality. Whether the discussion was about history, politics, current events, cinema, or music, Jaber would have insight and value to add to the conversation.
Jaber was born in Marda, a Palestinian town located in the Salfit Governorate in the northern West Bank, 18 kilometers Southwest of Nablus. He left Marda to pursue his studies in the US and successfully did so in California and Michigan, earning a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in economics. He was a leader in the US branch of the PLO’s General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS), which is how I first met him.
Throughout the 1980s, his work led him to spend significant time in South America promoting the Palestinian struggle for freedom and independence. When his work frequently brought him to Youngstown, Ohio, we became more than friends. The couch in my small apartment’s living room on Roosevelt Drive became a place he started to call his second home. We bought memberships at the Scandinavian Health Spa in Boardman and challenged each other to go work out whenever he was in Youngstown, me heading straight for the pool and Jaber dragging me to the weights and aerobics first. A stickler for details, he would call from places like Chile, Bolivia, Brazil, and Ecuador checking up on this and that, a few times rattling off in Spanish before I could remind him to change frequencies so I could understand. Jaber never got bogged down by things he could not directly affect, he just calculated what could be done at any given moment, and moved on. A virtue we would all be well-advised to strive for.
Jaber knew that our personal lives are not just sideshows, but needed the same attention as the larger struggles of life. He was one of the very few people I was able to engage with about personal matters. We each contemplated with the other where marriage would take us, where to live, how to absorb the seismic changes happening in the Palestinian national movement, how best to manage our work lives, among so much more. He married Salam Jabarin and they had two boys, Khalid and Ghassan. Jaber and Salam finally decided to settle in Youngstown, Ohio and started building their business later in life than most. Working as a team, Jaber and Salam were able to make the progress others who had a few decades head start made. While building a family, home and several successful businesses, Jaber was adamant not to forget his lifelong commitment to his community. He was an active member of the Arab-American Community Center of Youngstown and the Youngstown Grocers’ Association, holding multiple leadership positions at both, including president.
Jaber’s standing joke was how could life be fair when I, the Youngstown native, am living in Palestine, and he, the Palestine native, is living in Youngstown. After decades of being unable to even visit Palestine, Jaber decided it was time to attempt to come home for a visit. A little nervous, but as practical as always, Jaber made the trip to the Ben Gurion Airport (better known to Palestinians as Lod Airport, before its name was changed in 1973) in 2008. He was permitted to enter by the Israeli authorities and made his way to his birthplace. He was in his glories. He spent the visit like a child in Disneyland, wanting to experience it all. We went on many day trips. One trip in particular, was when I took Jaber to visit Jerusalem. He kept trying to make sense of a landscape that was now foreign to him. Nevertheless, some parts of Jerusalem will never change and as we got closer to the Old City he was able to anchor his memory in a few well-known spots. Upon driving out of Jerusalem back to Ramallah a car pulled up beside us and the driver started frantically waving. It was a friend of ours, a woman that Jaber worked with back in California during his student days. He was tickled that after so many years, he could still find someone to recognize him in Jerusalem.
That first trip was followed by several others. After a serious health issue, Jaber’s health was finally stabilized. So, a few years ago Jaber and Salam came on a visit and decided to purchase an apartment in Ramallah; he wanted to create a platform for a future retirement. Just last year the apartment was completed and they came back and furnished it, only to learn upon getting back to the US that Jaber’s cancer was back and spreading. He was told to prepare for the inevitable. My father accompanied Jaber when he got this devastating news. And in perfect Jaber style, my father said he stayed focus on what could be done. He entered a year of shuttling back and forth to the Cleveland Clinic and local Youngstown medical facilities for intense chemotherapy treatments, which took their cruel toll. When my father was his driver on these trips to Cleveland he would call me in Palestine when Jaber was getting his treatments to let me know how he was doing. My dad’s message was always the same, “Your friend is one strong man.”
Jaber’s last months and days were full of pain. This past summer he asked his wife to drive him to Michigan to see his old friends, one who has his own serious health issue. Jaber had a hard time but made the trip and bid all of his friends there a final farewell. Back at home in Youngstown, Jaber’s living room became witness to a constant flow of friends, all wanting to help wherever possible, but there was not much anyone could do. My sister, Leila, made sure Jaber had a stash of her famous biscottis, which he loved. Jaber sat with everyone who visited, albeit quiet and clearly unwell. Every so often he would faintly interject his insights, still sharp, on the topics being discussed. If there was ever a poster made for a person who passed away with full dignity, Jaber’s photo would be on it.
Rest in peace Jaber; rest my brother, we will take it from here. You did your part and so much more.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on September 9, 2016 on ePalestine, a website featuring commentary by Sam Bahour. It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Bahour.